Herod Was Religious – Lazar Puhalo
Editor’s note: While many believers celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas day, millions of others extend the celebration of the Incarnation through what they call ‘The Feast of the Nativity’ well into January. In so doing, they think of the Incarnation as encompassing, not only the birth of Christ, but his whole life as God-made-human.
These are the days of the Nativity of our Lord God and Savior, the Incarnation of the living God, the Incarnation of co-suffering Love. The Sunday after the feast, the Gospel story of Herod and the Magi always holds a great revelation for us.
I was asked recently asked online, “Does evidence disprove religion?” Perhaps it doesn’t disprove it so much as it exposes it. Remember, we always try to caution that religion and faith are not the same things.
Herod, you know, was a genuine believer. He was very strict about keeping the kosher laws and the other laws of his religion. Even Caesar makes note of the fact that when Herod would come to Rome—as he had to periodically to promise his fealty to the Emperor—he always refused to eat any kind of pork. And he was very careful about the kosher laws. So we could say he was a religious person.
Of course, he also had several wives and he even killed a few of them. He had numerous children both in and out of wedlock. Yet he was very religious! But this doesn’t mean he had any faith.
So when the Magi came and told Herod, “Look, the prophecies of your religion are being fulfilled and we have come to venerate the one who has been born according to the word of the holy prophets,” Herod believed. He knew the word of the holy prophets. Yes, he was very religious. He knew and he could consult exactly where the Messiah was to be born. But he understood that the Messiah was to be a military ruler, a military king who would take over the land of Israel and rule it and make it great again.
But that threatened his personal power and perhaps even his great wealth. Perhaps he would have to answer for the wives he had disposed of and for the others he had disposed of, including some of his own sons. We recall that Herod had once heard a rumor that one of his sons was plotting against him, so he began to systematically kill all of his sons to be sure that he got the right one. Only Caesar intervened and stopped him. That was the kind of man that Herod was … but he was very religious.
Herod wanted to know where the Christ was to be born, claiming of course that he wanted to go venerate him also, but actually he wanted to destroy him.
And this is one of the great revelations of this Gospel text to us now. Like Herod, so many people are religiousbut seem to have not understood the meaning of faith. How does evidence disprove religion? By showing the gross hypocrisy and meanness of mind that often accompany it. Sometimes, hatred and fear are preached in the name of religion, but these are completely contrary to our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, for Christ did not give us a spirit of fear, nor of hatred, nor of any of such things—and yet very religious people often have them all.
Those who become enemies of religion can easily point to the great hypocrisies, the great bigotries, the great disobedience to the word of Jesus Christ that are practiced by so many religious people … and especially by those who preach the loudest.
So Herod understood that the word of the prophets had been fulfilled because he was so religious, yet wants to kill the Messiah because he had no faith. He could not worship him since power was more important to him than the truth or even the heavenly kingdom.
The Magi came from Persia. Such a long distance to travel—dangers on the road, hazards from wild beasts, from thieves from bands of robbers, from brigands, from first, from hunger. And yet they came all that great distance.
But why was it revealed to them? Because their hearts were open to the grace of the Holy Spirit and the grace of the Holy Spirit spoke to their hearts. For surely they had the prophecy of Daniel who had been chief of the Magi about what time the Messiah was to be born. And risking so much, they came to venerate the One they did not know, and to worship and glorify the One whom they had not read about in the prophets of Israel.
And yet those who had the word, the testimony, and the prophecy desired to kill him. But it seems so often that some religious people seek Christ in their hearts only to push him out of their hearts. Others seek for a long time to find Christ and when the light of Christ comes into their hearts with great joy, they embrace the faith.
It’s a small thing to think about but how many of our own people say I am a Christian because I am a Russian or Greek. Or I’m Christian because I am an American, after all. So we have religion, but religion does not equal faith. Religion is so often a kind of nationalism or an ideology. But we’re called upon by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to have faith. Not in some kind of system, not in a body of theology, and certainly not in some kind of ideology based roughly on religion mixed with politics.
We’re called to a living faith in a living God. It means that we are not seeking to live according to rules laws and regulations, but to have a transformed heart. To have our inner person transformed, to be changed. And we cannot say this enough: the Christian faith is for the inner transformation of the heart into the image of the heart and life of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For what is it to call yourself a Christian yet live by Old Testament laws, which our Lord Jesus Christ has abolished in himself having fulfilled all of the law and the prophets for us? What is it to live our lives externally, on the surface, and then in petty, petulant, nasty little ways, observe and judge others for not living up to those rules, regulations and standards? What is it to continue in gossip, slander and harming other people? Or demanding our own will over the will of our brothers and sisters? Or creating splits and divisions in the household of God by our own ego, self-centeredness and self-love?
All of these things are the evidence that overturns religion and disproves it. Because if religion does not have the power to help us, guide us and lead us to the transformation of the inner person, to the transformation of our hearts, to bring our hearts and conscience into oneness—then of what value is it and what does it have to say about the teachings of Jesus Christ?
We are called upon to have the Christian faith, not to have it as a religion. And to understand that to have faith is not just faith in the existenceof Jesus Christ, but in the inner content of the life of Jesus Christ—his lifeof compassion, of love, of healing. His life of self-sacrificing, unselfish love that caused him to enthrone himself on the cross and to suffer so many things. His life as a revelation to us of the power of his co-suffering love, of the power of unselfishness, of the power of transformation through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
And now we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And we have understood that this is not about what Christmas is about—not merely gift-giving and roasting turkeys and opening presents. The Nativity is about the Incarnation of the living God.
And it reveals to us that God has only one attitude toward mankind and that attitude is unchanging. And that the attitude is co-suffering love for mankind. As Abba Anthony has told us, there is no other emotion and passion in God. There is only love and nothing else.
Is that not the faiththat we are called to imitate and to live—to embrace one another with a holy love. And sometimes to put aside our own desires and our own will; to quell our ego for the sake of unity and harmony in the brotherhood, in the sisterhood and in the community.
And then, having practiced it locally among ourselves, to open our hearts to embrace all of humanity—every human being who is the image and likeness of God. And if we want to point to evil, let us remember that evil is a parasite on mankind it is not the nature of man. That man is essentially good and that we are essentially compassionate people who respond to each other. That we are called upon to understand one another, and if we do not understand, to disqualify ourselves from judging because we do not understand. And if we do understand, then to share in the passion and suffering of our brothers and sisters rather than judge or condemn. And not to say, this kind of human being or those kinds of human beings, or even to say Muslims are Hindus or Buddhists are of the devil or something. But simply to say, they are human beings created in the image and likeness of God and many of them desire the truth.
But can they see the truth in us as Christians? Do we live that truth so that people can actually see our Lord Jesus Christ in us and in our lives? For so many missionaries go around the world and preach in ways that distort the gospel so badly, that people shun and turn away from it. We cannot try to convert people because “we are right they are wrong.” We can only try to shine forth the love of Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit in this world, so that we are a lamp placed upon a lampstand and others can see in us a light that may lead them to the Lord Jesus Christ—peacefully and without coercion, without threats and without preaching of hate and fear.
If we learn nothing else from this Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ it is that Christ came in such great humility and in such meekness to be born in a manger cave. He emptied himself of the glory that he had in the heavenly kingdom and came to such a low estate. And if the living God can so humble himself and be of such meekness, how can we claim to be his followers if we’re not humble? Not just humble before God, but humble before one another and meek before one another.
Look at the life of Jesus Christ and think about what he did, walking along those dusty roads, with no place truly to lay his head. Enduring the temptation on the Mount to reveal to us the mystery of Antichrist; going about healing even those who did not believe; persecuted by his own; despised by those who should have loved him the most; and crucified by the people who should have known and understood who he truly is.
This is the great mystery of God that is revealed to us on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ: that God Himself is meek and humble and lowly of heart. How then can we preach of him and preach his name with arrogance, with condescending, with triumphalism, with ego?
Brothers and sisters, let’s strive above all to live in the life of Christ, to learn about God through Jesus Christ, and see the compassion and the forgiveness and the tender mercy. And to see how he encircles and embraces us with such a great unselfish love.
And yet he calls upon us, as the holy prophets did, not to betray God by neglecting the poor the widow the orphan and the hungry. Is our salvation only about a relationship with Jesus Christ? He tells us it is not:
“I was hungry and you didn’t feed me, naked and you didn’t clothe me, thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was sick and you didn’t visit me; I was in prison and you didn’t come to me. Depart from me I never knew you.”
“When Lord did we do these things? When you did not do these things for the least of these my brethren, you did not do them for me.”
Our relationship with our brothers and sisters with our fellow human beings is a part of our salvation also, for we have no relationship with Jesus Christ if we have no loving, caring and compassionate relationship with other human beings.
Put away from your thoughts the religions that are being preached in the name of Jesus Christ and look to a living faith in Jesus Christ himself.
Let’s strive to live a life in Christ, that we might be of Christ, and that we might truly speak about Christ to the world around us.